As the outcome of his pancreatic cancer grew clear, someone asked Pastor Chris Nelson how he’d like to be remembered by the congregation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
He responded: “I would like my legacy to be: He left and it didn’t make any difference.”
“It was never about Chris,” recalled Ben Cieslik, the pastor who posed the question and who worked with him for seven years. “It was always about God in the church. He was a profoundly humble man, but also incredibly confident. He knew the skills he’d been given, building teams to continue the work.”
Nelson died June 18 at home in Eden Prairie with family and friends after being diagnosed in November. He was 64.
In his 23 years as senior pastor, Bethlehem’s congregation grew from 800 to more than 4,000 as Nelson translated the tenets of a Southern Baptist “purpose-driven church” to traditional Lutheran theology.
Arriving at Bethlehem in 1994, Nelson faced the challenge of revitalizing its mission at a time of stagnating membership, Cieslik said. Nelson and lay leaders visited Saddleback Church in California, where Pastor Rick Warren famously developed the concept of the “purpose-driven life.” In the church, this means paying attention to five things: how people worship, how they serve within the church, how they connect, how they grow in faith and how they reach out into the world.
Nelson and the parishioners returned “blown away” by this way of working as a community, Cieslik said. “It energized the staff, and was both a loosening and an empowering of the congregation.”
As Bethlehem’s main congregation grew, two new church communities also were founded: the Spirit Garage for younger generations, and Jacob’s Well, known as “a church for people who don’t like church.”
Nelson also became a key member of Warren’s Purpose-Driven Network, a global alliance of pastors who train other pastors. He traveled to India, Iceland, Poland, Denmark, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere.
“He was a mentor, formally and informally, to pastors around the country and around the world,” Cieslik said.
Nelson was born in Baltimore and grew up in Philadelphia. In his junior year of seminary, he met Deborah Carbaugh at a church in Buffalo, N.Y., where she was singing.
“We met on the first Sunday in September and got married on the last Saturday the next August,” she said of their wedding 37 years ago.
Nelson served at Incarnate Word Lutheran Church in Rochester, N.Y., then moved to Minnesota to St. Philip the Deacon in Plymouth before going to Bethlehem.
He remained as active as possible after the diagnosis, Carbaugh said, and was able to participate in two important family occasions in the past month: their son’s graduation after he returned to college to finish his degree, and their daughter’s marriage.
“The hospital let him out at noon, and the wedding was at five,” she said. “He was able to walk her down the aisle.”
Nelson also kept playing his guitar, always for personal enjoyment, but now also to keep his fingers strong. He was the sort of person who was always reading a book, “if not more than one,” Carbaugh said. “And he loved going to the ocean.”
Along with his wife, Nelson is survived by his son James of Belle Plaine, Minn; daughter Alison of Richfield; brothers Jeffrey and John; sister Sarah Kramer, and two grandsons.
A memorial service is scheduled onThursday at 7 p.m. at Central Lutheran Church, 333 S. 12th St., Minneapolis.